Monday, 12 March 2018

Caesar, Homer, Pytheas and Lugh

What if, when Julius Caesar first sailed across the Channel to carry out his first abortive foray into Kent, he had discovered that refugees and returnees from the Trojan War (Achaeans and Trojans alike) had got there first? And what if those larger-than-life heroes of Homeric myth had mingled with the figures of Celtic legend, the Fomorians, the Tuatha De Dannan, Math ap Mathonwy, the black dog and all the rest?

Fast forward a hundred or so years, and there would be a walled Roman settlement there on the Thanet coast. It would be a place to trade for tin, slaves, and other commodities, and also for magic and druidic mystery and wisdom. Inland, there would be hill forts and towns, some ruled by native Celts, others ruled by Achaean and Trojan demigods, living in an uneasy and chaotic network of alliances, rivalries, conflicts and betrayals. In the forests would be fey beings of Celtic myth, "fair folk", dragons and giants. And the glory-obsessed Achaean and Trojan sons would be forever straying into the fairy realm to try to win eternal fame for themselves.

That would be a good place to run a campaign of D&D.

Thursday, 8 March 2018

RPG Books as Imagination Training

We are now in the Bronze Age of OSR blogs (the Golden Age being 2008-2009 and the Silver Age being around 2009-2012), and I think Joseph Manola's Against the Wicked City may be the best and most important blog started in this era. By which I mean he is consistently finding new and useful things to say at a point where most other blogs have grown jaundiced and tired.

A case in point is his most recent post, RPG Books as Fiction. Go and read it. It's long, but worth it.

Where I think Joseph is precisely on the money (the whole thing is on the money, but on this point it is especially so - if that isn't a tautology) is here:

"I suspect that what [most RPG books] primarily provide, which traditional adventure fiction does not, is a form of meta-fantasy: not a chance to imagine yourself as a fantasy hero, but a chance to imagine yourself as part of a group of RPG players who are, in turn, imagining themselves as fantasy heroes as they experience the material in the book. People read RPG rulebooks, and they imagine how much fun it would be to play a character with a certain set of abilities. They read monster books, and imagine how much fun it would be to encounter those monsters during an RPG session. They read setting books, and imagine how great it would be to participate in a campaign set in that world. They read adventure modules, and imagine how much fun those adventures would be to play in. Then they put them back on the shelf and do something else, instead."

This describes much of my teenage experience of reading RPG books to a 't'. Yes, my friends and I played a lot of games. But how much published material did we actually use for its intended purpose? I can remember a couple of sessions where we played some published Planescape adventures. But the vast bulk of my memories associated with RPG books was paging through them on long car journeys or while on holiday and just, well, imagining what it would be like to use them. "Wouldn't it be great to be in a session where we encountered a morkoth?" I would think as I browsed through the Monstrous Manual. "Wouldn't it be great to have a PC find the Hand of Vecna?" I would think as I read the section of the 2nd edition DMG on 'artifacts'. "Wouldn't it be great to run an all-druid campaign?" I would think as I flicked through the Complete Druid's Handbook. "I'd love to run a campaign set in the Philippines," I would think as I sat reading the Cyberpunk 2020 Pacific Rim Sourcebook. My experience of actual gaming was a pale shadow of the kind of things that my adolescent brain could come up with left to its own devices.

(Not incidentally, I had a similar relationship, thinking back, to Games Workshop books. My friends and I played a heck of a lot of Warhammer, Warhammer 40k, and Necromunda. But being impoverished 13 year olds, we could barely afford any models. We primarily resorted to using a huge mass of ancient lead figures bequeathed to one of us by an older brother or cousin, and we could only dream about the possibilities of actually being able to buy a Basilisk/Lehman Russ Battle Tank/Dark Angel Dreadnought/Orc Shaman Riding a Wyvern or whatever, while paging through 'Codex' books. With Games Workshop, though, the requirement to just sit around reading books and imagining was more or less a nakedly commercial phenomenon rather than anything else.)

It may seem that this makes buying and reading RPG books an extremely decadent and even perverse activity - like a kind of unexciting pornography in which you don't even get to imagine having sex with a beautiful woman but instead just imagine being a horrendous nerd. One view is that it's basically impossible to sink any lower in the hierarchy of cool than fantasizing about playing D&D; you're so tragic that you can't even find a few catpiss-stinking neckbeards to game with and have to simply wish that they existed.

That's one way of looking at it, but when I look back now I can't help but feel that I would have been wasting my time even more egregiously by, for example, playing video games or even reading bog-standard fantasy novels. It might be true that most RPG books aren't particularly well-written, and you couldn't class any of them as being 'literature' in any real sense. But their great virtue is their open-endedness. They don't pretend to be coherent narratives - except for the most railroady of published adventures. At their best, they are a kind of springboard for the imagination: 96 pages of ideas, some better than others, but all of them at least capable of being played around with and squeezed and squashed and stretched and turned upside-down and kicked about until they turn into something wonderful. I may never have got to play in a game in which a morkoth was involved, but I was able to imagine dozens of potential morkoth-scenarios.

In other words, that time spent just browsing RPG books and imagining never-to-be-realised possibilities was a kind of imagination boot-camp, imagination circuit-training, imagination bikram yoga. Since the imagination is a muscle, I think it came in more than handy. Still does, as a matter of fact: I don't think I'll ever run, say, The Veins of the Earth, A Red and Pleasant Land, Qelong etc. at the table, but the thing about the imagination is, there's never a bad time to tone it up a bit.

Saturday, 3 March 2018

When is a Quantum Ogre a Quantum Ogre?

The answer: when it's really a quantum ogre.

2011. Halcyon days. Summers were warmer then, and chocolate was tastier. There wasn't so much rubbish on TV, and children were polite to their elders. You could get change out of a £5 when you ordered a pint, and Suzanna Reid was still on BBC Breakfast. We will not see times like those again.

The talk of the town back then was quantum ogres. Like paleontologists picking over the bones in a mound of Inner Mongolian dust, it is impossible for us in these much-diminished days to establish just how that discussion began and what colour feathers it had. (A post I wrote in September of that year may bear some important clues.) Suffice to say: in that era, a mighty beast stalked the earth, and its scientific name, "Palette Shifting", gives some indication as to its nature.

I return to the desert to conduct more field work on the topic with some trepidation. But I believe that I may be able to at least provide a footnote to our understanding of the quantum ogre's life-cycle and behaviour.

Let's put it this way: palette shifting, meaning the quasi-railroading practice of substituting one encounter or location for another, to make sure the PCs experience it come what may (or to make sure they avoid something dangerous), is dastardly, rotten behaviour that cannot be countenanced. But the quantum ogre is nothing to be afraid of; in fact, the quantum ogre is your friend. Most of the work of running an RPG is, when it boils down to it, quantum ogres. Quantum ogres are everywhere.

What is a random encounter table, but a list of quantum ogres? An encounter takes place: the dice dictate it. But until the random encounter table is consulted, nobody knows what the encounter is. Like Schrodinger's Cat, until the dice are rolled, the encounter is all the encounters on the random encounter table. It is quantum ogres all the way down.

But that's obvious. Let's think a little bit more: when it comes down to it, isn't most of what a DM does at the table a matter of quantum ogres? Almost all that a DM does is to react to what the PCs do. What does such-and-such an NPC say in reaction to what the PCs say to him? What does such-and-such a monster do when the PCs do such-and-such? What happens when the PCs try such-and-such on the trap? It almost always comes from the same place: you don't know the answer to any of those questions until forced to produce an answer. The DM's head is a Schrodinger's Box: the answers are in there, in a sense, but until there's a need for them, he typically doesn't know what they are.

In that sense, your brain is full of quantum ogres. More than that, it should be full of quantum ogres, because the alternative is preconceptions about what is going to happen in any given circumstance, which is the enemy of flexible and responsive DMing. Quantum ogres in this view are not palette shifts; they are palettes full of colours whose hue you can't see until they're on the canvas.

Friday, 2 March 2018

Japanese Kids' Books

Children's books (I mean little kids' books, not YA fiction) are an often-untapped resource for inspiration. This is especially true of little kids' books from non-English speaking countries. I'm in the lucky position to have access to lots of Japanese kids' books, and thanks to that I've been introduced to the work of the inimitable Katayama Ken.

Here are some pieces from his 楽しい冬ごもり, a particular favourite:

See what I mean? It's like Van Gogh had a love child with Brian Jacques. I especially love the way the firelight in the second and third pictures imbues the scene: it may be the most effective painting of firelight I've ever seen.

Then there's Matsutani Miyoko, whose work is more like brass rubbings made by Monet:

Finally, there's Kimoto Momoko, whose works looks like Salvador Dali crossed with Dick King Smith:

Grainy internet pictures may not do them justice; I hope this isn't the case.

Tuesday, 27 February 2018

Reaction Dice Which Create the World - Matagi Hunters

Long-time readers may remember three posts I wrote about using reaction dice to build the game world (herehere and here). I still intend to expand on this idea a lot in New Troy. But I am also 'piloting' minor elements of it for The Valleys of the Winter People. In this setting, the men in remote mountains form roaming bands of bear hunters in the winter, the matagi, who gradually revert to a semi-wild state when on the hunt. If they catch and kill a bear, they return to civilization triumphant. If they fail, they gradually become bears themselves.

In encounters with the matagi in the wild, the DM rolls a reaction dice as normal, but this determines both the reaction of the hunters and their current state, which is linked. Hence:

2-3 Attack: The matagi are almost entirely in a feral state - a sliver away from tipping past the point of beyond return. Their senses are all preternaturally heightened, meaning they are not surprised, and they are aware of the PCs from d100 yards away. Their only interest in the PCs is as prey, but they do retain enough sentience to be capable of communication.

4-6: Aggressive: The matagi are a mixed group, who have been long on the hunt without success. 1/3 are fully human, 1/3 are semi-feral, and 1/3 are entirely feral. The senses of the semi-feral and feral members are heightened, as for the 'Attack' result, and these will target the PCs as prey; the other members of the group may be reasoned with and can control the remainder if they are persuaded to do so.

7-9: Cautious: The matagi have been hunting for some weeks without success. They are largely fully-human, but have 1-2 semi-feral members with them. The semi-feral members will not target the PCs as prey without the permission of the full humans. The senses of the semi-feral members are heightened as for the 'Attack' and 'Aggressive' results.

10-11: Neutral: The matagi have recently begun their hunt. They are fully human, and cautious but not aggressive. They are surprised on a roll of 1 and the encounter distance is standard.

12: Friendly. The matagi are returning from a successful hunt. They have a killed or captured bear with them (50% chance of either) and are in exceptionally good spirits; they are surprised on a roll of 1-2 rather than 1, and are on their way back to a random village (1 - Odose; 2 - Shariki; 3 - Bihoro; 4 - Komakai). The encounter distance is standard.

Wednesday, 21 February 2018

What is the Blogosphere for now? New Modes of Play

Zak S recently put a post up on G+ (which I hope he won't mind me paraphrasing and quoting from) to the effect the OSR or DIY D&D or whatever you want to call it has been a success: it has its own momentum now and it has actually become possible for people to simply make things and publish them without having to pass by the traditional gatekeepers of the hobby. He closed by saying, "The way of talking about games we had was designed for a situation of convivial stylistic and commercial underdoggery which no longer exists in the same way...different things are going to seem interesting or worth saying, and we're gonna have to figure out what they are."

I think this is especially true of the traditional D&D blogosphere. A few years ago, when Monsters & Manuals hit its 1000th entry, I put up a post bemoaning the decline of blogs. In hindsight, I shouldn't have been so hasty, because actually my own blog entered a bit of a "Silver Age" shortly after that that lasted a good two years, during which my readership exploded to levels never before experienced. It has gone down a bit since then, but that's mainly attributable to me posting less frequently and with less quality, I think, than previously (parenthood has given me a permanent -2 to my INT score; I hope it's not cumulative with each baby).

But it's indisputably the case that blogs aren't what they were, partly because the "stylistic and commercial underdoggery" has gone away, and partly because so much has been written and said that needed to be written and said that it feels as though we've run out of things to write about. There is always going to be call for more creative content (monsters, art, new rules, etc.) but any more writing about the principles of good play would probably now be flogging a dead horse. We've got 10 years of that behind us.

I think, though, that a few big undiscovered countries remain - enough, in fact, to provide plenty of grist for further elucidation and insight. For starters:

  • Nobody has posted anything definitive yet about running underwater adventures/campaigns
  • And for that matter nobody has posted anything definitive yet about running wilderness exploration adventures/campaigns either 

More than that, though, while we have become very good at ploughing the furrow of "rogues exploring a sandbox in order to get rich", what we have only begun to scratch the surface of are different modes of play. Think of all the metaphorical internet ink that has been spilled on how to successfully run rogue-PC-oriented sandbox games, and consider that there is surely an equivalent amount of that ink to spill on how to effectively run games that have different sets of starting parameters. What, for instance, are best practices for games in which the PCs are "good guys"? What about best practices for games about spying or diplomacy? What about best practices for games in different eras - pseudo-Victorian period, pseudo-Ancient Greece, pseudo-WWI? What about games in which the PCs are defending an area from invaders? And so on.

What I think it boils down to is: we've said most of what we need to say about dungeons and hexcrawls. But there are more things in heaven and earth than that.

Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Confessions of a Lazy Wannabe Novelist: A Call to Arms?

I have spent an inordinately large amount of time in my life penning the beginnings to short stories and novels. (My Mum still occasionally jokes that after I left home for university she went through my bedroom to transform it into a guest room and found box after box stuffed to the gills with hundreds and hundreds of sheafs of paper, all labelled 'Chapter One' at the top. This is almost certainly true.) I sometimes wonder if there is space in the market for a book of first pages to novels: here are 300 starts to stories - you, the reader, make up the rest! If there was, I'd be a millionaire before I knew it.

I have a short attention span, I am lazy, and I am hyper-critical of my own work. These are traits which I suspect most published authors have, but they get around them somehow. I know this, because I have managed to do so outside of the context of writing fiction (I wrote a 100,000 word PhD thesis; I wrote a 300+ page long RPG setting book and have another one close to completion; I have just about finished an academic monograph). So what is it about writing fiction that's different?

It is partly, I think, because I care about it too much. I don't want to write stories. I want to write work of heartbreaking and epoch-making quality. This sucks the enjoyment out of the process: from the start, I feel immense pressure to begin the literary equivalent of carving Michelangelo's David.

But also it's because, paradoxically, despite writing a lot, I don't write enough. I have honed my ability to write a good start to a story to a razor edge. But because I stop after a few pages, my ability to tell a good tale on paper, start to finish, lies unpracticed. I begin to bore myself very quickly, because I haven't figured out how to properly pen what I am compelled by the weight of history to call a "gripping yarn" - entirely because I never get far enough to do so.

Are you, like me, a lazy wannabe novelist? Are you caught in the paradox of writing a lot, but not enough? Let's start a support group. No pressure. Put your email address in the comments or where I share the post on G+. I'll set up a G+ group where we can share sob stories and cajole each other to write, and possibly even critique things we eventually get finished.

Saturday, 17 February 2018

NPC Idea: Rumpelstiltskin's Child

What if Rumpelstiltskin's plan had succeeded and he had ended up with an adopted son? Brought up by an amoral trickster-devil, taught to be able to spin straw into gold and disappear or reappear wherever he desired - but, at his core, fundamentally and irredeemably good because of his kindhearted mother?

He would be ungovernable, untrustworthy, unreliable, unkempt, and uncouth, constantly using his talents in all manner of undesirable ways. Donating vast wealth to a beggar on a whim, with little thought to how the beggar will avoid being robbed the next day. Buying a war galleon and crew to help him realise a frivolous dream of becoming a pirate, roaming the high seas causing mayhem until becoming bored (and often leaving his victims behind, unmolested, on a rowing boat with a gift of a golden necklace and a cheerful, "Sorry!"). Breaking the hearts of young girls by plying them with trinkets before quickly becoming distracted by the next pretty thing to catch his eye, but trying to make amends with inappropriate presents for their mothers. Using his ability to appear from nowhere to spook old ladies and priests.

Alternatively, he would be morose, unhappy, ill-at-ease with the world, forever wary of using his gifts because of a pained awareness that he will draw unwanted attention to himself, and scarred by his upbringing with a wicked father. He would still be unable to resist the urge to perform small acts of kindness - a pinch of gold straw given to a poor urchin here, a donation to a dilapidated temple there, a gift for an old widow, revenge taken on a neighbourhood bully.

Other fairy tale "what if" ideas: Rapunzel marooned in her tower after the witch accidentally dies while on an errand; the seven dwarves are hired to preserve royals in glass before they die so they can live forever.

Friday, 16 February 2018

New Blog/Project

Some readers may remember my series of posts on the Fixed World. I recently started another blog which comprises a travelogue written by an explorer (of sorts) of that world. You can find it here.

Tuesday, 13 February 2018

The Great OSR Novel?

There is no earthly reason why a great fantasy novel couldn't be written about dungeoneering. I picture it as being not so much character-driven as an extended depiction of a place: something like a fantasy version of Manhattan Transfer in which the main character is itself the dungeon, and its true nature and extent is gradually revealed as groups of adventurers encounter it, explore it, and expire - or successfully (or unsuccessfully) retire. 

It would also be more entertaining than Manhattan Transfer, which I think would have been markedly improved if there had been orcs in it.

I want this book to exist, and I want Gene Wolfe to have written it; the other option is Jack Vance, which would produce a decidedly different but also, the more I think about it, in some ways not-so-different text. A kind of picaresque, but a picaresque of location: it's not a story about the adventures of a rogue living off his wits in a series of bizarre encounters, but rather a story about a place in which adventurous rogues have bizarre encounters which kill them or make them rich. Each chapter is devoted to the career of a group of comrades in a different portion of the dungeon; they come and go, but in the end only the dungeon and its inhabitants remains. The reader has followed a narrative arc, not towards the climax of a plot, but towards knowing the fictional creation in intimate detail.  

(Gormenghast may in fact be a better exemplar.)